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Heard on .NET Rocks! Dead Head Bill Wagner

Carl Franklin and Richard Campbell interview Bill Wagner about C# and the Grateful Dead.


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n episode #223 Richard and I spoke to Bill Wagner (co-founder of SRT Solutions and C# MVP) about C# and, of all things, the Grateful Dead. Well, OK, it was about evangelism and how the Dead did it right. Here's a short passage from that interview. Carl Franklin: Let's talk about your blog for a little bit, and specifically about some things that you've written lately. Listeners can find Bill Wagner's blog at shrinkster.com/k1p. I was particularly struck by what you wrote on February 13th about evangelism, and you were really sort of, paraphrasing what Kathy Sierra had written about evangelism, and the perfect case study for what you could consider evangelism as the Grateful Dead. I thought, wow, Bill Wagner is a Dead Head.

Richard Campbell: That's my reaction too. Carl Franklin: Now, let me just tell you before you answer that I've been to a few Dead shows in my day, and the band takes their raps because they're so unlike any other band that ever was. Not only is their music longer and more drawn out and more improvisational than any other rock band that ever was—but because of that you have to take the bad with the good, and the bad shows with the good shows, and it all works out, and when they were great, they were great, and when they were off, we put up with it, but they also let people tape the band for free, and other bands have followed suit, and they didn't mind that people traded tapes of concerts so long as they didn't sell them. I had this idea for evangelism back in the days of Carl and Gary's VB homepage, and I even pitched it as the Grateful Dead being the example of evangelism that I wanted to follow. So, that really caught my eye. Just tell us a little bit about your thoughts and anything that I left out.

Bill Wagner: That was actually a pretty good summary. Kathy Sierra's blog is a really good one to read. She has been an employee at Sun [though] I don't know if she is or not anymore. She is the brains behind the Head First book series from O'Reilly. And what's really interesting there; if you read through the things on her blog, she's got into this because she is prone to epileptic fits and was really studying how the brain works and ended up learning things about what turns on your brain. So, you look at things and you say, "Well, what makes people go, 'yeah, this is what you've really got to learn about'," no matter what it is. Marketing people have started to say that's evangelism—that's trying to get your customers to say, "This is what you've got to have." And [Kathy] has a couple of interesting analogies she uses for that. Like in the computer world you can look at Apple. They can't understand why you're just not an Apple freak, because everybody should be. Richard Campbell: That it's the greatest thing ever.



Bill Wagner: And they can't stop telling you how wonderful it is. When I started thinking about that, I was thinking [about] everybody I know who is a Deadhead. The way they got into it was, some friends said, "Yeah you should go just listen to these", or you go to a concert, and then you go, "Well, you got any more?" What else should I get, what else should I buy? Oh, don't buy the albums. Carl Franklin: Don't buy the albums, yeah.

Bill Wagner: Here's a few tapes. Well, okay. So, you listen to the tapes and you go, "You got any more?" Take those and go keep trading, and then it keeps going; and some people have all the albums still. And now, the Dead have retired, they have got the Dick's Picks series and One From the Vault. Carl Franklin: Those are live recordings that the band did on the road from the soundboard, and then they went back and remixed them. Some great stuff,

Bill Wagner: Right, and I keep forgetting that everybody is a Deadhead—but yeah, so they had this whole vault of stuff that they went back and re-mastered, and like a lot of other Deadheads, when the From the Vault ones came out, where I had tapes of the shows, I went and got those CDs too, because the quality is better. Carl Franklin: Right, because they already hit the shows and the quality is better.

Bill Wagner: Yeah. But what they did is, they get all these people going, "Yeah, you got to go through this, got to do this." And because it's the customers who aren't making money doing this, they got a lot of fan support, and the affinity grows. Carl Franklin: Yeah, it's the epitome of viral marketing; I mean, the product itself sells itself. "Listen to this," or "Hey, use this software or check this Web site out" or whatever it is.

Bill Wagner: See, what else is interesting there it's also a form of viral anti-piracy like there used to be on Usenet, it's probably still there, but like that music, that G Dead was one of the newsgroups, and you could directly post and say, "Yeah I haven't had any trades in a while, who's my tape list?" Well, if you actually posted some that said, "I want to sell tapes" you were just… Richard Campbell: Crucified.

Bill Wagner: Oh, it was obvious. Or if you were walking around a concert going "Tapes for sale…" Carl Franklin: Yeah, forget it.

Bill Wagner: That was ugly; it didn't happen. Carl Franklin: You'd get beat up.

Bill Wagner: Right, because the community are just like, "No, those aren't the rules. We'll be happy to trade, but those aren't the rules." And to help people get started, they'd say, "Well just send me extra blanks and I'll make some for you, say, three shows or five tapes" or whatever. Richard Campbell: But the music was the currency.

Bill Wagner: Right, because the band said, "You can do this, you can record these, you can trade them." Carl Franklin: Now, before we get all nostalgic—and we already have I know that, you got to remember that a lot of people have completely ruined their lives following this band around for years and years.

Bill Wagner: Oh, I know. Carl Franklin: I mean, I know people who can barely talk without drooling.

Bill Wagner: Right. There's a little bit of balance to everything. Carl Franklin: Of course.

Bill Wagner: I have seen all the "Star Wars" movies. I didn't wait in line for a week for any of them. Carl Franklin: You've never donned the Darth Vader Mask.

Bill Wagner: No, I haven't done that—except for Halloween maybe, but that had been it. Carl Franklin: I personally—not to stay on this topic, but in fact we probably should cut this out—but I just love their songs.

Bill Wagner: Well, I do too; I enjoy a lot of it. Carl Franklin: Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, Bob Weir, they're all great songwriters—American songwriters that should be remembered as such.

Bill Wagner: Very much so. They're all very good. I definitely have a preference for Hunter and Garcia tunes, but I enjoy all of them. Carl Franklin: Also a little bit—another connection is that the guy who wrote 'Cassidy', which is a very famous Dead song, he wrote the words to it. John Perry Barlow is part of the Electronic Frontier Foundation with Mitch Kapor, the guy who wrote Lotus 1-2-3, and he and a few other guys started to promote electronic freedom, to make sure that people's rights weren't being violated through the Internet.

Richard Campbell: And arguably, the EFF is the reason the Internet is still the way that it is. Carl Franklin: You could argue that, yes.

Bill Wagner: Yeah, they certainly have a lot to do with trying to protect a lot of different privacy and some data-mining rights on the Internet. Richard Campbell: Well, on the whole, push back against the tiered service—I mean, all of those kinds of things, even DCMA-EFF is in that battle every time.

Bill Wagner: Definitely. Carl Franklin: I also was reading the blog post, "What I learned non-technical at CodeMash".

Bill Wagner: Oh! Yeah, that was a fun one too. Carl Franklin: Are there some really good philosophical things in there?

Bill Wagner: That came out from a couple of other interesting discussions at CodeMash. We tried an experiment there where we had, in addition to the main sessions, some open spaces talks going on in the hall or in the area around the breakout sessions. And for those—if I can give just 30 seconds primarily on open spaces... Carl Franklin: Sure.

Bill Wagner: The idea is, you just go up to a board, and you will write down, "I want to talk about some topic". And sometimes it was, "Getting my company to adopt new technology." One of them was "Women in technology" that Diane and Mary spent some time on it. One was, "I want to create Flex UI's using Adobe Flex Toolkit". And then, whoever showed up wanted to spend some time about it, and you just chatted and if you got bored you got up and left. Well, one of them was about, how to get my company to adopt this new technology and make use of this, because I think my management is a bunch of idiots in all these kinds of things. And we started talking about, have you tried to show a business case for moving toward this new tool or moving toward this or that? Oh yeah I did, and no one listened. Well have you tried doing this? Oh, I did and no one listened. If you've tried everything constructive you can do to get your manager to see and you think they're [going in] the wrong direction and not budging, you guys are just going to keep this thing going, and you are both going to be frustrated. Carl Franklin: Yeah. There's another possibility, which is, this guy could be full of crap.

Bill Wagner: Well, there's that too. Either way, they're both going to be happier if the manager has got people who are willing to say, this is decided, here's where we're going, and we're going to do it. And this guy is going to be happier if he is working for a company [where] he is really behind the direction they're going in. Richard Campbell: And you bring up this point that some people see software development as a cost and some people see it as—I mean, really a capital investment. And so, the people as well are also worth investing in.

Bill Wagner: Right. And it's very interesting to talk to people with different companies and how they view themselves and how their company views them, and if a training budget gets allocated, and if so, how does it get allocated? Some people learn better at conferences. Some people want to take a five-day training course. Some people just want a shelf full of books and some time—a mixture of all of that—and how do you go about getting that stuff approved, and something like CodeMash, which was two days, and a lot of different topics, and really inexpensive. And some people were saying they had a lot of pushback from managers. And you can look at some of the big shows, like going to PDC or if you're going to go to the MVP Summit, there's so much content there, any company should be really just pushing their people to go. Richard Campbell: I think you get to the key issue here, which is not that I want to dictate training; it's that I insist that you as a developer improve. Pick your method, but you've got to get better.

Bill Wagner: Right, and you've got to learn what else is coming down the pipe, because maybe you're not going to use it right away, but wouldn't you like to know what's coming next as you're adopting whatever it is you're adopting now. We were arguing about [whether] should we do remoting or Web services or this or that, and the right answer is, to get a good start and understand that you'll replace both of them with WCF in a few years anyway. So, having that kind of a view of the future really helps make better decisions. Carl Franklin: How about this one? "Some companies view software people as an investment and some view it as a liability or cost."

Bill Wagner: Right. Yeah, the word I used was cost…this has a lot to do with the environment you want to be in and what you want to do when people are invested in the future for any of us developing software now. I don't know what's going to be next, but I am confident that I'm going to be using a different toolset five years from now than I am using now. There's no doubt about it. Richard Campbell: Without a doubt, yeah.

Bill Wagner: I am going to be building different stuff five years from now that I am now, because we'll have solved the stuff we can now. So, if you're not staying ahead of things and really learning, you're not getting any better; and I think that's important for companies too…that in any company you've got rising stars, cash cows, and dogs. So, the rising stars are stuff that's not making money yet, but we really need to learn about them because it's going to be there. Cash cows are what you're making money on now, but you've got to [be] willing to transition off of those because they're going to turn into dogs. Richard Campbell: Yeah, they pass.

Bill Wagner: Right. And you've got to see what's going on, and if your company views you as just a cash cow. If you can't transition to the next thing because you're not getting any opportunities [then] you're going be in trouble when whatever you're doing now stops generating revenue. Carl Franklin: Invites tensions, so will the company.

Bill Wagner: Oh, it will; and what's funny to me is, there are companies that do it two different ways. Some of them—you're right the company is going to be in trouble because they won't see that this product has a limited lifetime. There are others that have that view of, "I'll just hire new people when I am ready for the new stuff," and those people really scare me, because they are throwing away a lot of vertical market expertise, and a lot of intelligence on things outside of a specific technology because they didn't nurture it. And in the long run I think those companies will really be hurt as well, but in the short run they will succeed for a while longer. Richard Campbell: Well, it's like buying a major piece of software that you're ultimately going to resell and not bringing the team with—like all of the knowledge about that software is in the software.

Bill Wagner: Right. It's not; and that it never seems to go as well as in reality as it does on paper. Richard Campbell: Like any one of these real intangible asset issues.

Bill Wagner: Oh yeah. Richard Campbell: That's a tough one to figure out. What's the asset here? What is the real value of a group of 40 developers that know how to work together can turn apps out? It's not the apps they make.

The conversation continues online at shrinkster.com/omh Carl Franklin

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the July/August 2007 issue of CoDe Magazine, and is reprinted here by permission.



   
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